authentic leadership

Authentic Leadership: Save the “Game Face” for the Squash Court

One of the best-kept secrets in the corporate communications world is that you can’t teach great leadership—not really. But you can coach leaders to be more authentic and authentic leadership is one of the hallmarks of being great.

Part of the reason you can’t teach leaders to be great, is that there is a big difference between communicating and “messaging.” Yes, I can help a new CEO walk her company through a complicated reorg with beautifully timed and carefully worded messages. But it’s not all about the message.  

It’s the way you deliver the message that makes the difference between communicating and “messaging.” And delivery falls into the category of authentic leadership. So, let’s get real.

Authenticity: The Magic

Authentic. Authenticity. Such an important part of communicating and it pains me to see it recently hijacked to become one of the most overused “woo woo” terms. It’s right up there next to “organic” (and no, I’m not talking about the organic tomato variety).  

What does authentic even mean? Quick. Take 15 seconds to think about what it looks, sounds, and feels like when you engage in an “authentic” conversation. Step outside of the corporate context for a moment. Maybe you see yourself chatting casually with friends; watching a captivating TV or political or entertainment personality; reading a really inspiring OpEd; or listening to someone tell an important story. What makes that discussion—regardless of the venue or channel—feel “authentic?”

Off the top of my head (no thesaurus.com today!)—when I think of authentic leadership, I think: Real. Genuine. Not fake. True. Natural. Honest. Direct. Candid. Connected.

Authenticity: Unlocking the Magic

That feeling that we just identified? The “realness” that makes you sit up and engage? That’s the magic in true communication—the kind that builds relationships, awareness, and interest. It can’t be created or manufactured, but it can be uncovered, enabled, and encouraged.

If authentic leadership is what we’re after, let’s discuss how to encourage and enable real, engaging conversations in the boardroom, on earnings calls, and even in blog posts.

1. Who is your executive, really? Unlocking authenticity requires a bit of soul searching and a lot of honesty. What is your executive’s style? Introverted? Extroverted? Detail-oriented? Big-picture? Funny? Sarcastic? Dry? Often the tone of the organization takes on a bit of the personality of its key spokesperson or executive. (See: Apple and Steve Jobs).

Rather than asking your executive what tone she prefers, do a bit of homework here. As you observe your executive interacting with investors in meetings, pay close attention to her tone of voice and watch how she engages with the discussion. Often, smaller-group discussions and meetings provide keen insight into how an executive prefers to interact.

2. Encourage your executive to be “real.” You’ve done the research and you have a good sense for how your executives prefer to engage. Now take that style and use it to your advantage. Often we feel like we have to put on our “game face.” While getting psyched for an event is great, putting up a facade or a false persona isn’t.We can all tell when someone is faking it, right? (See: Founder and former Lululemon Chair, Chip Wilson’s infamous apology).

Got a detail-oriented executive? Make sure that your quarterly earnings call script reflects her passion for the details of your firm’s technology or business model. Got a wisecracking executive? Embrace it and give her a few opportunities to release some (appropriate!) humor in their public engagements. Which leads us to…

3. Know your bumpers. One plea for caution here: Keeping it real doesn’t mean anything goes. You will want to give guidance on where the boundaries are. Discuss how many details are too many. Offer concrete examples as a guide to using humor effectively. Consider what challenging questions might come up and where the law requires a more matter-of-fact approach.

This is where professional media training can be really helpful. I strongly recommend that ANYONE who communicates externally (or heck, even internally) goes through media training and has the experience of presenting—both formally and informally—on-camera. Then sit down together to watch the replay and debrief. This is critical to understanding how our communications “quirks” and nervous habits can interrupt the connection with our audience and interfere with communication.

4. Give as good as you get. Keep in mind that communicating is a two-way street. It’s just as important to listen as it is to speak. And, it sounds simple because it is. Everyone wants to be heard. I remember watching in horror during a meeting with one of our largest investors when my CEO couldn’t stop “messaging” and just listen to the investor’s feedback. No amount of redirection could help. We lost that large investor within the month.

We can’t simply be in “outbound” mode all the time. We have to receive information to learn. You know those executives who have an innate pulse of their organization? And those who build teams that will follow them to the end of the earth? It doesn’t happen by accident. These authentic leaders demonstrate respect through listening and meaningful engagement.

So, if you want to help your executives give as good as they get, encourage active listening, i.e., fully concentrating and engaging. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help. The Center for Creative Leadership provides some excellent tips for building these skills in executives too.

5. Be consistent. It’s tempting for all of us to fall into the trap of “putting on our game face” for a big meeting, presentation, or conversation. However, if our “game face” is not consistent with our personality and the characteristics discussed above, it can come across as confusingly inconsistent at best and downright untrustworthy at worst.

Again, your observations of your executive come into play here. If you notice that your executive has certain triggers where she tends to put up walls or get a little defensive, point it out and train her to anticipate those triggers. Authentic leadership is as much about knowing yourself as it is about listening and reading others.

Authenticity: Back to Basics

We all interact with people in corporate jobs who put up walls (and I don’t mean along the border) and treat their work interactions as completely foreign from their non-work interactions. Let this post be a little reminder to get back to the core of all communications: connecting, engaging, and building relationships.

At its foundation, authentic leadership is all about finding subtle ways to be ourselves within the boundaries of our industries. Not sure what that looks like for your c-suite? Contact Audacia and we’ll help you figure how to keep it real!

Photo credit: macniak / 123RF Stock Photo

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